By Dermot O’Gorman, WWF-Australia
17 February 2014 — Like millions of people from all over the world, my first sight of coral was as a small boy on a family holiday to the Great Barrier Reef.
The beauty of the coral and the hundreds of brightly coloured fish totally captivated me (as they still do today).
So I was shocked, as a boy in the ’70s, when I heard that the Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen proposed oil mining on the Great Barrier Reef.
I was just a kid but it seemed pretty crazy to me. How could anyone take this beautiful place and stick a pile of polluting oil rigs there – it just felt wrong.
The fight to stop this outrage triggered the birth of the conservation movement in Australia and we owe a debt of gratitude to those conservation trailblazers.
Fast forward 40 or so years and the Reef is still under threat. After years of scientific research we have a greater understanding of how pollution is destroying coral on over 1000 reefs and harming fish, dugongs and turtles. Despite the evidence, governments still aren’t doing nearly enough to protect this international treasure.
Last year, as a partner in the Fight for the Reef campaign, we helped expose the reckless industrialisation of the Reef – an issue that had been gathering pace under the radar.
We put the spotlight on plans for mega-ports, large-scale dredging, and huge increases in the number of ships ploughing through reef waters.
In Brisbane more than 3500 people marched in support of Fight for the Reef and a resource giant pulled the plug on a proposed coal port in the Fitzroy delta.
The campaign will continue this year. Our first major challenge is to stop three million cubic metres of dredge spoil from being dumped in reef waters to expand Abbot Point coal port. Just imagine this: that’s enough waste to fill trucks lined up from Brisbane to Melbourne. All getting dumped in the marine park risking that some will find its way into the home waters of Nemo and his beautiful friends.
The Federal Government and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority may have approved the dumping but the fight is not over yet. This issue is mobilising people in a way not seen in years. It has really crystallised in many people’s minds the need for better management of this natural wonder of the world.
While dumping in the reef must be stopped, climate change looms as the biggest long-term threat. It is another compelling reason to reduce carbon emissions. Time is running out for coral ecosystems because of ocean warming and acidification – both caused by carbon pollution. As the world prepares for a new global climate deal in 2015, Australia must commit to stronger pollution reduction targets of at least 25 per cent by 2020.
The Federal Government also wants to undermine our national environment law (the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act) by handing over environmental and assessment powers to state and territory governments.
These are laws that protect the reef. State Governments have a poor track record when it comes to doing what’s right for the environment. Think Sir Joh and oil rigs on the reef.
Australians expect their Federal Government to act in the national interest and stop state governments when they go too far. When the reef was threatened by Sir Joh in the ’70s it was the Fraser government that intervened on behalf of all Australians. Later John Howard set up the reef’s green zones. It adds up to a proud history of reef protection by Federal conservative governments.
The Abbott Government initially continued this tradition with the Reef 2050 plan, which focuses on improving water quality, reducing farm run-off, fighting Crown of Thorns Starfish, and protecting turtles and dugongs.
However, the Abbott Government’s recent decision to continue what the Gillard Government started, and allow Abbot Point dredge spoil to be dumped in the marine park, is just plain wrong.
In the ’70s Sir Joh dismissed opposition to oil mining on the reef with his trademark “don’t you worry about that”.
Australians didn’t buy that line then. They certainly don’t accept plans now to treat the reef like a dump.
Forty years ago my parents’ generation stopped the oil rigs so that children, like my young son, could be dazzled by the reef.
2014 is the year in which our generation needs to say no to dumping – the next wave of grandchildren deserve that same chance to be captivated by coral and colourful fish.
Dermot O’Gorman is the chief executive of WWF-Australia.